A Vengeful Nation Demands the Death Penalty
On Tuesday night the state of Texas put to death Marvin Wilson, a 54 year-old man convicted of the 1992 killing of a police informant. An execution in Texas itself is not a rare event. The state leads our nation in capital punishment having put 477 people to death since 1974 (another 41 have died while awaiting their fate on death row). What makes the execution of Mr. Wilson notable is that his IQ has been measured at 61; he was, medically speaking, mentally impaired. This did not deter the state in its application of justice, as they conceive of it. Texas’ commitment to the institution of capital punishment is remarkable. The Supreme Court decided in 2002 to prohibit executions of people with mental impairments, but left defining mental impairments in the hands of the state. There is no compassion in putting people to death and Texas does not discriminate in its killings. They slaughter our national dignity with impunity.
Evidence supporting and refuting the death penalty as a crime deterrent can be easily found; for most of us the most compelling evidence will be that supporting our predisposed opinion. Our predisposed opinion fits into a larger political and social ideology we formed throughout our youth as a way to make sense of a complex and contradictory world. Contradictory evidence only strengthens our faith in our belief system. If you believe in the death penalty, the fact Texas put a man with a mental disorder to death will not change your mind. You may question the wisdom of killing Marvin Wilson, but your belief in the necessity of capital punishment as a social good likely remains firmly intact.
A national debate is stirring as advocates for abolition of capital punishment seize on the lack of human compassion many of us recognize in terminating Wilson’s life. The usual arguments for the death penalty seem crude when applied to him. He could not fully conceive of the implications of his actions, he was obviously not deterred by fear of punishment, and his death has little redeeming therapeutic value. What remains is vengeance. Any argument for a death penalty is founded on vengeance; everything else is window dressing to distract from the crassness of the truth. The death penalty is no more right or wrong today than it was Monday, before Wilson was executed, that sick feeling it may invoke is recognition of a fact we carefully conceal. We are a vengeful nation.
Dignity has several definitions, perhaps none more important when describing a society than worthiness of respect, esteem, or honor. Acts of extreme violence are never dignified. They may be inevitable, justifiable, and at times necessary, but we debase ourselves in order to commit them. They are moments when human decency has failed. Capital punishment may satisfy an emotional desire to define justice as revenge, but it cannot make anyone whole. On Tuesday night, Texas satiated a vengeful hunger by killing Marvin Wilson. The human condition was not improved in process. Nothing was learned. Our society is not more secure. We indulged an emotional desire through extreme violence. Our dignity is diminished by the perversion of justice – the validity of our laws – and the degradation of our humanity.